Why Can’t Evolution Be the Source of Transcendent Moral Values?

by Bill Pratt

In two previous blog posts (here and here), I have called attention to the fact that human beings universally take for granted that our moral judgments transcend time, place, and species. We judge certain actions to be morally right or wrong regardless of when these actions occurred, where they occurred, and also regardless of which species of intelligent agent has acted. I take these truths to be indisputable, based on our common human experience.

Biological evolution is a group of many and varied processes which act on all organisms to produce the great diversity of life on earth. These processes have operated on life in dramatically different ways depending on the particular time in earth’s history, the particular places where life resides, and depending on the type of organic species.

I take it that when a person says, “Evolution is the source of moral values,” they are saying that the process of evolution has produced particular bio-chemical brain states in human beings that we identify as moral values and duties. So, here are the problems for those who want to claim that biological evolution is the ground or source of transcendent moral values.

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With regard to time, the very word “evolution” entails change over time. A thing could not be said to evolve if it stayed exactly the same forever. Evolution, then, is working to modify and change all organisms all the time. It seems to me to be completely incoherent to claim that timeless, unchanging moral values have been produced by a process which, by its very nature, is changing everything on which it operates. If we are looking for a fixed, time-independent source of moral values, I cannot see how biological evolution even remotely fits the bill.

With regard to place, the results of evolutionary processes are quite dependent on geography. This was one of Darwin’s first insights about evolution, that geography is a major factor in the way that evolution produces biological diversity. No evolutionary biologist would claim that the effects of evolutionary processes are the same across our planet, or even on other planets (assuming life exists elsewhere). But if moral values are independent of place, then how can a process which produces completely different effects from place to place possibly produce moral values?


Why Can’t Evolution Be the Source of Transcendent Moral Values? | Tough Questions Answered